An Un-American Use of One Laptop Per Child

   
   
   
   
   

At this moment, I don't know whether the One Laptop Per Child will exist next month. I also cannot predict whether Intel will continue with their Classmate project if the OLPC XO is abandoned. But I am Winter and I am optimist. I will assume that, starting next year, millions of children in the developing world will take a laptop home and will have some form of limited internet access.

Many have questioned the added value of these laptop programs in education. To inject more substance in these discussions, I want to present a specific case of real added value. Many innovative and imaginative scenarios have been given. But, frankly, I feel unable to predict such new uses convincingly. I didn't see Google coming, nor spam, so why should I be able to see the next innovation coming?

olpc greece
All Greek OLPC to Americans

So I will focus on a well understood part of education. This is a part of education that I have never even seen mentioned in the discussions about these projects. I will introduce the subject with an, admittedly stale, joke:
Q: How do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A: A trilingual
Q: How do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A: A bilingual
Q: How do you call a person who speaks only one language?
A: An American

This joke tells us two things. First, if you are rich and powerful, eg, an American, everyone speaks your language. Second, the rest of the people will have to learn new languages after they enter school.

The language situation in the developing world is complex. Children have to handle national, official, school, playground, and home languages. For many children, these are five different languages. It is obvious that the laptop programs will have an impact on this environment. But I will ignore this and focus on the learning of foreign languages.

In most parts of the world, people can increase their career prospects by mastering some foreign language. Therefore, most countries have implemented language learning programs in their schools. For instance, in my country, the Netherlands, two or three foreign languages are mandatory for most children: German, French, and English. Many choose a fourth, eg, Spanish, Italian, Russian, or even Mandarin (starting next year). We can ignore the classical languages, Latin and Greek, for this discussion.

If we summarize centuries of experience, language learning comes down to practicing. The best-practice approach is to read, write, listen, and speak as much as possible. Technology clearly helps in the textual part, as reading and writing benefit from the internet, eg, on-line newspapers and magazines, and email is used in correspondence programs with foreign students. Technology also helps with speech. While learning a language, a student should listen and speak to native speakers.

In the Netherlands, qualified teachers can play this part. But without such a teacher, it is common practice to distribute recordings and spoken courses. The student can listen to the recordings and record her own speech and compare the playback to the examples. This is all well known and practiced everywhere in the world. Qualified language teachers are scarce in the developing world. How can the laptop projects help in language learning?

Nepal olpc art
Limbu script on OLPC XO

First, of course, by supplying loads of recent reading material in the target language and allowing correspondence projects. Just as in the developed world. Normally, our students listen to CDs or iPods to practice listening.

The target population of the laptop projects will have only limited, or no, access to these means. However, the laptops can supply the playback and also double as voice-recorders. Speech takes a lot of room on disk, but with free compression programs like Ogg Speex and school servers, this problem is largely solved.

The laptops do solve the major inhibitor of computer use in language teaching: Non- and sub-standard audio equipment. All laptops are quiet and have reasonable quality audio in/output. They are also small enough to do without headsets.

Teaching material is plenty. Look around in Google and you will find countless on-line or digital courses in any language you want. So any country that wants to include language courses on the laptop can either buy and adapt some existing course or ask its universities and publishers to develop a new one.

To summarize my point. Students in the developing world need and want to learn foreign languages. Language learning is most efficient if the students have access to a lot of original written and spoken material in that language. They also can use existing technology to help them practicing writing and speaking. With no access to alternative technologies, the laptop projects will be invaluable in enhancing the effectiveness of language teaching.

I will end with the title. Why is this un-American? Because North American students are some of the few students in the world who can safely choose NOT to learn a foreign language.

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Winter wrote:

"To summarize my point. Students in the developing world need and want to learn foreign languages. Language learning is most efficient if the students have access to a lot of original written and spoken material in that language. They also can use existing technology to help them practicing writing and speaking. With no access to alternative technologies, the laptop projects will be invaluable in enhancing the effectiveness of language teaching."


As always, the real problem is not recording or playing sounds (any computer out there - including Classmate, XO, off-the-shelf desktops,etc, - has audio recording/playing capacity). It is about providing kids with educationally relevant content and the cost of reaching such goal. Education is far more complex that grabbing free content from the internet.

"It is about providing kids with educationally relevant content and the cost of reaching such goal. Education is far more complex that grabbing free content from the internet."

Maybe I was not clear enough. I was NOT refering to FREE content.

Just to a very large choice of real, tried and tested computer aided language courses. These can be BOUGHT or LICENSED by the countries wanting to deploy the XO or whatever laptop program.

The beauty is, there is REAL competition in the field of language courses. This means that both quality and price will reflect what is possible.

My post tries to answer two questions:
1 Can personal laptop be made useful in education?
2 Has educational content been developed for computer aided education?

My post points out that:
First, there is an area, foreign language teaching, where children without audio equipment can benefit enormously from laptops.
Second, in this field, really loads and loads of educational content is available for very reasonable prices.

And if the prices are too high, all of the recieving countries have universities who will be happy to supply any language courses the state pays for. Language education is a really well understood subject matter. The client countries do have well functioning research programs in the field of second language learning.

Winter

Winter is pointing out the superior "take home" learning ability that the laptop provides. Students can play language phrases with corresponding pictures at home during study time.

Troy, providing relevant digital content for education is up to the countries providing laptops to their children and I'm sure they will solve content issues quickly and later, refine education packages for local demands of teachers.

Where countries have limited ability to create their own content then I'm sure with guidance from the OLPC they can quickly overcome that problem. So far the Nepali effort seems to be breaking new ground. I'd be interested to hear how their call for programmers to visit Nepal and help create content has worked out.


"My post tries to answer two questions:
1. Can personal laptop be made useful in education?"

So far, nobody has proven it beyond some anecdotal evidence, Winter.

The example you provide is not very useful, as audio playback/recording can be achieved with ANY computer (laptop, desktop, Classmate, XO, whatever).


"2. Has educational content been developed for computer aided education?"

Sure, there are thousands of things out there pretending to do the job. Some are good, some are not, as you surely understand...but sorting the good from the bad is a very complex task, so the bottom line becomes:

- What's the cost of providing educational relevant content? (which is what I said in my previous post)

If the question of cost and relevance is not considered, then ANY idea is good to go:

chess is good for kids, let's implement chess schools in the third world;

better communications casn't possibly hurt kids, let's sell millions of cellular phones to Nigerian kids;

Music is an integral part of kids' artistic and aesthetic development, let's create the XO Pod for $10.99, with minimum orders of 2 million.

A bit more thought must go into these well-intentioned initiatives. But yours is a noble attempt, I must say.

"1. Can personal laptop be made useful in education?"

So far, nobody has proven it beyond some anecdotal evidence, Winter.

The example you provide is not very useful, as audio playback/recording can be achieved with ANY computer (laptop, desktop, Classmate, XO, whatever).
"

That is what I wrote (I checked it). The children need audio equipment and text processing/email for language courses.

A laptop of $100-$200 is probably a cost effective solution AS IT CAN ALSO BE USED FOR OTHER PURPOSES. I am certain that you will have a very large audience if you have a plan to supply equivalent technology at lower prices.

It is rather simple:
Before the children have little if anything to help them learning a new language. After, they have a functional laptop supplying texts, conversation, playback and recording.

And that being anecdotal. Use your favorite search engine and enter
"computer aided language learning"

"
"2. Has educational content been developed for computer aided education?"

Sure, there are thousands of things out there pretending to do the job. Some are good, some are not, as you surely understand...but sorting the good from the bad is a very complex task, so the bottom line becomes:"

Do you have any experience with language courses? Have you ANY idea what size of an industry that is? And have you any idea about the quality of language research done in countries like Brazil?

Again, it might help to use your favorite search engine and enter
"computer aided language learning"

Winter

Part of my english skills are due to the fact that I am able to listen to hours of english podcasting every day. Access to information can change many people's lives. But part of the solution involves getting the teachers to listen to podcasts, to make them reach language games and etc

Winter,

may I remind you that the burden is on you to back up your infantile claims?

The usefulness of laptops in the classroom has been debated at nauseum in this and many other places, without anyone ever producing verifiable evidence of measurable positive results.

In any case, I don't want to hijack your post. I expressed my opinion on your idea and that's that. I'll now move on...

Please forgive me, but the the language to which you are referring is in fact English.

I agree with you that this means that the second millennium is now over, and we won it.

Americans are of course English, it's their birthright. Oh, I know, you had a bit of a ding-dong with us some time ago about Indeprendence and all that. All sensible and upright children need to declare their independence from their parents. There's not a bit of harm in it and --- as you know and as HM Elizabeth Windsor made clear a few days ago --- we may have seemed a bit cross at the time but we have always wished you well.

But you *are* speaking English.

With love,

Martin Woodhouse

"The usefulness of laptops in the classroom has been debated at nauseum in this and many other places, without anyone ever producing verifiable evidence of measurable positive results."

Here is 5 minutes worth of Google (for computers):

"The Virtual CALL Library aims to be a central point of access to the diverse collection of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) software scattered across the Internet and available for downloading."
http://www.sussex.ac.uk/languages/1-6-6.html

"Computer-Aided Language Learning, or CALL for short, has a long history, going back to the pre-PC days when CALL software was developed for BBC Micros and Ataris."
http://www.fredriley.org.uk/call/call/index.htm

"User-Centered Computer Aided Language Learning (Hardcover)"
http://www.amazon.com/User-Centered-Computer-Aided-Language-Learning/dp/1591407508

"SPEECH TECHNOLOGY IN COMPUTER-AIDED LANGUAGE LEARNING: STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS OF A NEW CALL PARADIGM"
http://llt.msu.edu/vol2num1/article3/index.html

Dutch sources for schools
http://www.kennisnet.nl/

Winter

English is now "the" language of the internet, but it is not necessarily going to be the dominant language in the future. Chinese and Spanish are spoken by a larger number of people than English. The developed world as we know it is English speaking (either as a first or second language), but this is not necessarily going to remain the primary language in the future. If and when people in the developing countries (thanks, hopefully, to the XO) will have access to the internet, other languages will have more visibility. To say that "we won" is egoistic, and frankly unfair, similar in attitude to the Spanish inquisition. I seriously hope for diversity to emerge, in the form of a multicultural, multilinguistic representation of the internet. It's about time for Americans (and I am one...), and Brits to start being multilingual as eveybody should be, to appreciate diversity. If the XO could help reaching that goal, that would be a tremendous success.

I love this:

"may I remind you that the burden is on you to back up your INFANTILE claims?"

I may have accidentally capitalized a part of that.

Fair, objective, balanced, sweet.

Let's also just dismiss that the laptop CAN be useful. Maybe it is too obvious.

"may I remind you that the burden is on you to back up your infantile claims?"

Troy,

A classic example of a Freudian slip ;) - keep the above in mind when you submit your posts.

Now, as to computer aided language learning, there's no need "to back up" anything so obvious (unless you live in US and the only language you speak is English) - millions of people (I used it to learn 2 foreign languages myself) around the globe use it successfully every day around the globe...Geez...

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